Value of Journalism: Different motivations for journalists

I’m at the Value of Journalism conference at LSE right now. I didn’t live blog the panels, but there were a few things that stood out for me and spurred some thoughts. There were discussions about paywalls, which I think largely reinforced my view that a very polarised, noisy media fracas obscured a much more nuanced reality in the paid content strategies of news organisations.

I did want to flag up the comments of Joanna Geary, a friend of mine, who spoke about her journey into journalism. UPDATE: Like many people, she stumbled into it. She told me afterwards that the move “was planned but knew it wasn’t perfect for what I wanted”. She says that on entering journalism she wasn’t a newspaper reader, and she definitely wasn’t someone who had specific loyalty to one newspaper. She is an information seeker. Now, she says that she regularly visits about five sites a day.

They are full of people I find interesting. They stimulate my thinking. Those are the sites that I visit the most.

This is very much the way that I consume information. I’m interested in subjects and topics, and as a networked journalist (the topic of this conference), I use personal networks and other tools to get as much information and gather as many sources about a subject that I can. As a journalist, I then try to sift, filter, highlight and verify. I also try to draw connections between these sources and bits of information. It’s very similar to traditional newsgathering, but the tools are different.

At conferences, I’m often asked about my news consumption patterns, and my standard response is: “My reading habits are voracious and promiscuous.” I find the idea quaint that I would choose a single news source for my information. Every source has it’s point of view, some more prominent than others. I feel the need to read several sources of information to get a complete view of a subject or topic.

I used to think that I was in the minority doing this, especially seeing as as a journalist, it’s part of my job to sift through a lot of information. However, this might represent a broader shift in news consumption. Gina Chen at the Nieman Lab at Harvard looked at a recent Pew Research Centre study in the US. (Caveat being that US studies aren’t necessarily applicable to all markets.) She interpreted the findings as:

But the important point is that the loyalty isn’t to the platform, the application, the delivery system, or the brand. The loyalty is to the need for the information.

That succinctly describes my relationship to news and information. I’m still not ready to generalise my news consumption patterns, but I do think that there are elements of my news consumption patterns that I share with digital audiences. I think that people are filtering information, consciously and unconsciously. Editorial choice and voice used to be the only filter for news, but I think that is changing. People have other tools that are proving to be better vehicles for relevance than the traditional news outlet and its manner of bundling information.

Teasing out Trust

Back to the conference which has the overarching theme of the Value of Journalism. It’s important to draw a distinction between societal value and economic sustainability. Speaking of teasing out issues, Joanna also drew a distinction between legality, accuracy and trust:

If it was illegal to be untrustworthy and wrong, a lot of journalists would be in jail.

Joanna also talked about her motivation for getting into journalism. I’m writing this part of the post a little after the panel, and I don’t want to put words into Jo’s mouth. However, it is safe to say that her motivations going in were different than the motivations that she found other journalists had. Jo said that she found that many journalists just wanted to write, to have influence and be recognised. Jo’s motivations were more based on a desire to inform. (I’ll check with Jo just to make sure that I’m not misquoting her. She did say to me after the panel that she is finding more people in journalism like her.)

Jo’s comments resonated with me. As I’ve said before, in my rather brief career thus far I’ve had the honour of working for international journalism organisations including the BBC and The Guardian. However, I got my start at a small newspaper in western Kansas, The Hays Daily News. When you’re writing for a newspaper that sells 14,000 copies to people spread across a few thousand square miles, one is aware of the limits of one’s influence.

Of course, we all want to be read or viewed. However, in terms of influence, it’s not really something that I’ve sought nor is it what gets me up in the morning. My goal is to provide people with information so that they can make decisions in a democratic society. I know that trust and credibility is the bedrock of what I do.

Engagement has been key to building trust in the journalism I do, and Jo spoke very eloquently about that during the panel. It is one of the reasons why I have been such an advocate of social media journalism. It is a chance to directly engage with our audiences and to build (or in some cases rebuild) our relationship with people.

Overcoming journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience

Like many blogging journalists, I now find myself spending more time with Twitter and seeing the conversation take place there instead of on blogs. I suspect it is down to time constraints. As Stowe Boyd said last week at the Thinking Digital conference in Newcastle, blog rhymes with slog because blogging is a lot of work and has produced a natural barrier to entry. Yes, anyone can blog but few people have the time to devote to maintaining a vibrant blog. I find myself now often wanting to capture some of those Twitter conversations.

Today, Adam Tinworth said on Twitter:

I think that journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience may be the most difficult challenge to overcome in jobs like mine.

Andy Dickinson, who teaches Digital and Online Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, asked:

do you think it’s entitlement or just institutional blinkers?

To which Adam replied:

Entitlement. “I’ve made it as a journalist. Hence, I have an audience.”

I think the problem is actually deeper than that. I think the institutional belief is that if we work for a major publication or broadcaster that not only do we have a de facto audience but that we deserve an audience. It’s the height of institutional arrogance and self-importance, and it’s obvious to anyone who even has one foot outside of the bubble of institutional journalism that this is the case. But therein lies the rub. For many journalists, we never get outside of this bubble. I think it’s one of the reasons that journalists are bewildered by the fact that viewership and readership numbers are declining. Journalism matters, we say, and it does. But we are too often the authors of our own increasing irrelevance. We trivialise the important and amplify the trivial. In this noisy age, we don’t help our audiences find the signal but instead make a vain attempt to drown out the noise, often with self-serving arguments about our own importance.

Our audiences understand this more than we’d like to admit. I still remember as a cub reporter having a member of the public tell me I was full of shit because I was a journalist and that he wasn’t going to talk to me. I said fair enough and talked to him about the weather until he opened up and answered my questions. Put another way, if journalists’ relationship with our audiences was a marriage, the audience is filing for divorce.

This isn’t a bout of professional self-loathing. I am still very proud to be a journalist and, if anything, I am someone clinging to my journalistic ideals as I too often see my industry making a joke of them. I believe strongly in the public service that journalism can provide, but too often recognise that instead of a public service, our audience sees us a public nuisance, nothing more than professional gossips and self-appointed scolds. We don’t hold power to account. We don’t seek out facts and cut through opinion. Too often, we are playing a bit part in a what can only be called a high-stakes but low budget soap opera. We are nothing more than supporting and enabling characters to the drama queens of political and entertainment celebrity. Yes, in the UK, we have uncovered MPs abuse of the expenses system, but the journalism is all the more exceptional because it has become the exception.

This is also not about being liked but about being relevant and earning respect rather than assuming it. We don’t deserve an audience. We aren’t owed a living. We might think that we provide a valuable public service, one essential to democracy, but the public doesn’t buy it. We have squandered the public’s trust.

The issues as I see them:

  • There is no clear division in the industry between fact-based analysis and commentary. I find well researched analysis valuable. I rarely take the time to read commentary, no matter how inflamatory.
  • There is over-reliance on a few sources throughout the industry with very little original reporting.
  • We live in an age of information abundance. We need to seek information that is rare and valuable for our audiences, or we have no reason for being.
  • Finely crafted prose is no substitute for reporting. Our audience sees through our attempt to write around what we haven’t found out.

We live in an era of information abundance. As Andy says in a follow up to Adam, “the expectation is more that the audience comes as a given not earned or nutured.” We’ve taken our audiences for granted, and now we have to do a lot of hard work to earn them back.